Our Ladder of Opportunity

You don't have to look very hard to notice the impact Latinos are having across all walks of American life.

We're leaders in politics, business, labor, culture and sports. We're on the Supreme Court, in the president's cabinet, in governors' mansions and in the leadership of Congress. We're CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and leaders of the American labor movement.

We've won Oscars, Grammys, Emmys and Tonys. We've got the best home run hitter in America's national pastime, and the best judge on American Idol. We've even been to outer space and tweeted -- in Spanish -- about the wonder of the world below.

In so many ways, the American Latino has come of age. And now that we've achieved positions of power and influence in this great nation, it's our responsibility to lower the ladder and help our brothers and sisters climb up.

As the country's first Latina Labor Secretary, I appreciate both how far our community has come and how far we still have to go.

I grew up the daughter of immigrants in a small barrio outside of Los Angeles and was the first member of my family to go to college. My father came from Mexico, my mother from Nicaragua. My Dad will proudly tell you he was a laborer, a farm worker and a railroad worker; my Mom worked at a toy factory and raised seven kids.

Both of my parents were determined to give us opportunities that they never had. They taught me the value of a hard day's work and that, with an education, anything is possible in America.

I'm proud to work in an administration that shares these values. As member of President Obama's cabinet, I apply them every day as we work to advance opportunities for Latinos and our prospects for a full economic recovery. A recent Department of Labor report makes clear that the two go hand in hand -- that is, Latinos will be instrumental in driving this country's renewal and growth.

Last year, America's nearly 23 million working and unemployed Latinos represented 15 percent of the United States' labor force. By 2018, we will comprise an estimated 18 percent. This expected 20 percent growth in our share of the workforce makes us the fastest-growing group of workers in the country.

Unfortunately, however, we are not yet prepared to seize the incredible opportunities before us. Today, when only 1 in 6 employed Latinos over age 25 has a bachelor's degree, the need to provide our community with access to relevant, industry-recognized 21st century skills couldn't be clearer.

At present, Latinos are much less likely to have a college degree than our white or African-American counterparts, and we earn only 70 cents on the dollar compared to white workers.

We know we can turn these numbers around. After all, Latinos come from a heritage of hard work, but our great work ethic will only flourish if we have the qualifications for job openings where we can apply it.

That's why my department is focused on creating what I call "career pathways" for Latino learners. We've partnered with 450 Hispanic-serving institutions -- community colleges and universities that are creating programs tailored to meet the needs of local employers. This is important because more than half of this country's college-educated Latinos start out at a community college, and they're looking for credentials that will translate into high-skilled, good-paying jobs.

At the Department of Labor, we're investing millions of dollars in workforce training in high-paying, high-growth industries -- in healthcare, information technology and renewable energy.

I've placed a special emphasis in the green job sector where Latinos are currently underrepresented. For example, we've awarded $150 million in grants to create "Pathways out of Poverty" for disadvantaged populations to get trained in green sector jobs like solar panel installation, and another $100 million to help dislocated workers get retrained for energy efficiency careers.

We've also funded 3,000 community one-stop career centers across the country, which are doing so much to match qualified Latino job-seekers with gainful employment.

But we must dig even deeper -- ponerle ganas, as we say in the Latino community.

We must lower the ladder all the way down to ensure our youngest generation doesn't become our lost generation.

Every day in America, 7,000 students drop out of high school. That's one dropout every 26 seconds. The problem is especially serious for our Latino youth. One in five children in our K-12 schools is Latino, and nearly half aren't finishing high school.

We simply must do better.

Earning a GED is critical if we're to get these youth back on track to continue their education and get a good job. Right now, just 1 in 10 Latinos who drop out earn a GED. We know the dropout crisis risks America's competitiveness and our economic future. We have to give our youth a second chance to earn vital workforce skills. If we don't, we will lose valuable contributors to our economy and risk falling further behind other countries.

YouthBuild and Job Corps are two of our most exciting programs at the Department of Labor, because they give thousands of Latino youngsters a second chance. These programs help them earn their GEDs while gaining real-world work experience, whether it's learning to build and retrofit homes, become chefs or acquire masonry skills.

As American Latinos, this is a time of great opportunity and great challenge for our community. For the good of our nation and our people, we must seize it -- whether that means lowering the ladder or climbing it.

As my hero Cesar Chavez said: "Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours."

Hilda L. Solis is the United States Secretary of Labor.